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6 September 2022

Boris Johnson is about to become the Tories’ Meghan Markle

Removing his title will not diminish his influence: it will expand it.

By Martha Gill

Meghan Markle has compared herself to Nelson Mandela and the little mermaid; Boris Johnson, himself to Winston Churchill, Moses and, most recently, to the fifth-century BC patrician-farmer Cincinnatus, called to lead Rome at its time of need. Each has a preference for the slightly incomprehensible turn of phrase (Californian platitudes and Latin, respectively). Each talks of their commitment to the environment, yet each, when offers arise, prefers to travel by private jet. Each held, then lost, the love of the British people. Each compelled their spouses to leave their former roles, dooming them to the job of playing second fiddle. Each, despite considerable wealth, considers themselves a tragic victim of jealous conspiracies that would bring them down.

Strangely, though, neither has yet thought to compare themselves to each other. So let me do it now. Boris Johnson will soon be the Tories’ Meghan Markle

The parallels in their present circumstances cannot be ignored. Like Markle, Johnson is now stripped of his formal position, but, like Markle, his former institution will find it difficult to get rid of him. Removing his title will not diminish his platform, it will expand it – taking the shackles off and handing him free time in which to court publicity. Such is Johnson’s celebrity that he will make headlines with almost any comment he chooses to make.

That would be trouble enough for No 10, but, like Markle, Johnson also has the incentive to speak up – he has money to make, therefore he will not be able to afford to keep his mouth shut. Markle’s burden is her $14m mansion in Montecito, California; Johnson’s will reportedly be a Dulwich “forever home”, along with divorce settlements and school fees for his various children. Like Markle, opportunities to make this money will be based almost entirely on his former position – he will have no choice but to trade on it. People will buy his memoirs and attend his speeches on that basis, but talking politics will bring him into dangerous territory. Anything he says will inevitably be scanned for titillating side-swipes at those who instigated his downfall, and those who succeeded him in office.

But it goes further. Like Markle, Johnson seems full of bitterness, which can now be satisfyingly unleashed. As Markle might put it, he will be considered a challenge to Liz Truss “just by existing”. But the problem is he actually does seem to want to get back at those who brought him down. His speeches since announcing his resignation have bubbled with rage against his former colleagues. Take today’s (6 September): “The baton will be handed over in what has unexpectedly turned out to be a relay race. They changed the rules halfway through, but never mind that now.”

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Compare the tone of this to last week’s Cut interview with Markle: “’It’s interesting, I’ve never had to sign anything that restricts me from talking,’ Meghan says… ‘But it takes a lot of effort to forgive. I’ve really made an active effort, especially knowing that I can say anything,’ she says, her voice full of meaning.”

Each could say much more damaging things about the institutions they were forced to leave. But they’re nobly choosing not to. For now. 

The rise of the independent celebrity career is a growing problem for Westminster as it is for the royal family. You can no longer really get rid of the troublesome figures – in fact it is often safer to hold on to them. Charles’s slimmed down monarchy will do nothing to diminish the power of those he leaves out of it – it is all the easier for them to sound off to newspapers. Prince Andrew will always be a recognisable royal, and anything he does will taint his family, no matter how hard they try to disown him. Similarly, in sacking Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s Downing Street made him a bigger problem than if it had kept him. Safely disposing of those with their own platform becomes almost impossible. They are just too powerful.

How much of a thorn in the side of Liz Truss will Johnson want to be? There are already some clues. A strong motive for Johnson’s supporting her leadership campaign was likely his personal animosity to her rival, rather than deeper loyalty or agreement with her politics (they profoundly disagree over green energy, for example). One theory goes that he supported Truss because he sees her as the easier person to eventually displace. It is highly unlikely that Johnson would succeed in a comeback (despite mutterings about a vote of no confidence, this would surely be electoral suicide). But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t relish the idea of his old colleagues clamouring for his return.

“I think Boris is going to be difficult,” Theresa May’s former chief of staff Gavin Barwell told Sky News. “If it begins to go badly for the new Prime Minister there is going to be that chorus of ‘bring back Boris’.”

More hints at the direction Johnson will take have come in the past few weeks, such as when he sent a warning to Truss over her views on fracking – saying she should not see it as a “panacea”. Truss can only cross her fingers and hope there is not more to come. 

[See also: Liz Truss’s problems start now]

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